Friday, October 31, 2014

Haints and Witches and Legends...Oh my! Tennessee Folklife Myths and Legends

Tennessee has a long history of ghost tales, odd happenings and legendary individuals with larger than life personas. Perhaps our most well-known haint is the Bell Witch as her story has been called “America’s greatest ghost story.”

Dean confronts the Witch, An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch: The Wonder of the 19th Century, and Unexplained Phenomenon of the Christian Era (1894) by M. V. Ingram, Library Collection.

In the early 19th Century, a spirit allegedly haunted the family of John Bell in Robertson County, Tennessee. In the first reported appearance of the witch, John Bell fired a shot at a “dog-like” creature which then vanished. Soon after, John’s children, Drewry and Elizabeth (Betsy), believed they saw other strange creatures around their home. These sightings were accompanied by strange sounds around the house. Betsy, Drewry and John began hearing unexplained knocks on the door and windows, and the sound of wings flapping against the ceilings and rats gnawing on bedposts. More disturbingly, the family claimed they could hear the echoes of choking and strangling along with a noise that sounded like chains dragging the ground and heavy objects hitting the floor. Sounds emanated from a bedroom as if “beds were suddenly and roughly pulled apart, to which was added the sounds of fighting dogs chained together, making the noise deafening.” The spirit reportedly increased its activity, physically abusing members of the family by striking, and pinching them and pulling their hair. Betsy seemed to be the most susceptible to the torture.

Elizabeth "Betsy" Bell, An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch: The Wonder of the 19th Century, and Unexplained Phenomenon of the Christian Era (1894) by M. V. Ingram, Library Collection.

The Bell Witch focused relentlessly on causing the death of John Bell, Sr., and blasted “Old Jack Bell” with curses, heinous threats, and serious physical torments. As the abuse continued to impact his psyche, Bell took to his bed. On December 19, 1820, John Bell failed to leave his bed and his son, John Jr., went to the cupboard to retrieve the medicine for his care. Instead of the three medicine vials, he found only one. The vial was one-third full of a dark, smoky liquid of unknown origin. The voice of the Witch reportedly gloated, “It’s useless for you to try to relieve Old Jack – I have got him this time; he will never get up from that bed again!” The spirit claimed that she “gave Old Jack a big dose of it last night while he was fast asleep, which fixed him.” The contents of the vial were thrown into the fire and erupted into a blue blaze. John Bell died December 20, 1820. To add insult to injury, the Bell Witch crashed the funeral, disrupted the service and sang bawdy drinking songs. Following the death of John Bell, the Witch’s activity dropped off sharply. 

The Grave of John Bell, An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch: The Wonder of the 19th Century, and Unexplained Phenomenon of the Christian Era (1894) by M. V. Ingram. Library Collection.

The Bell Witch may be the most famous ghost from Tennessee but she was certainly not the only apparition said to have haunted the state. Visitors to the Meriwether Lewis National Monument claim to have encountered strange sightings that some believe to be Lewis’ ghost. Others say that the cemetery at Carnton Plantation (Franklin), the site of the “five bloodiest hours” in the Civil War, is haunted as is Cherry Mansion (Savannah), The Eakin House (Shelbyville), Read House Hotel (Chattanooga), The Orpheum (Memphis), The Hermitage, Belmont and Belle Meade Mansions (Nashville). The list of Tennessee locations associated with ghost sightings appears to be endless.

In a 1979 oral history interview with Elaine Lawless for the Tennessee State Parks Folklife Project [], famed Macon County banjo player Cayce Russell recounted several ghost stories and witch tales. Russell discussed the old folk belief that sudden unknown illnesses could be the result of witchcraft. He further said that when someone had something wrong with them and believed a witch had “laid a spell on them,” they drew a picture on a large cedar tree in his grandfather’s yard, melted a silver dime, made a bullet out of it, and shot the picture in order to lift the spell.

Cayce Russell, June 19, 1979, Tennessee State Parks Folklife Collection.

Russell described Lick Branch Holler as “the most hainted place around” and told several ghost stories native to that area including Macon County’s own version of the headless horseman. “The man with no head on” was often seen in the holler on the Underwood Road. He was reported to be the spirit of a man killed by beheading during the Civil War. The audio files of this interview are some of many featured on the Tennessee State Library and Archives’ Folklife Collection in TeVA (Tennessee Virtual Archive). []

Reports of strange events of nature are also prevalent in Tennessee. On November 12 and 13, 1833, the Leonid meteor shower displayed a dazzling scene in the sky most visible in the deep South, particularly in Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana. Many people, having witnessed nothing so sensational before, believed the sky was falling and dubbed the night of November 12 as “the night the stars fell.” Since that time, numerous songs, books, poems and artworks were produced to commemorate the event. The song, “Stars Fell on Alabama,” has become an anthem to Southerners and, in 2002, the state of Alabama added the slogan to its license plates.

Shooting Star Quilt, undated, Quilts of Tennessee Collection.

On August 17, 1841, a rain of blood was reported on a tobacco farm near Lebanon, Wilson County, Tennessee. On August 24th, Walter B. Morris wrote a letter to his brother, Easton Morris, commenting that by the time his letter reached his brother, his brother would have already received notice “of the falling of flesh & blood as a shower of rain.” Morris recalled that he and a Dr. Edwards visited the place where the rain of blood occurred. While they were there, they met Dr. Gerard Troost, the state geologist, who arrived on the scene to write an article for the American Journal of Science. In his evaluation, Troost theorized that a tornado like wind “might have taken up part of an animal which was in a state of decomposition, and have brought it in contact with an electric cloud.” Under the heading “Rain of Blood,” a diary-like entry from a scrapbook kept by William F. Cooper stated that, if this had happened four hundred years ago, “such an occurrence would have struck terror into the hearts of whole nations.”

"Rain of Blood" Diary Entry, September 5, 1841, Cooper Family Papers, pages 80 and 81 from a "scrapbook" kept by William F. Cooper. The pages describe the rain of blood that reportedly occurred on a tobacco farm near Lebanon, Tennessee, on August 17, 1841.

While the rain of blood later proved to be a hoax, other legends were not so easily refuted. The Cherokee legend of U’tlun’ta or Spear-finger, for example, was described as having the appearance of an old woman, but possessing stone-covered skin. She had a long stony finger that resembled a spearhead. U’tlun’ta was best known for her ravenous appetite for livers, which she took from any person unfortunate enough to cross her. According to legend, U’tlun’ta often changed her appearance to resemble a family member or coaxed children to come near and then used her finger to slice out their livers.

U'tlun'ta - Spear Finger, 2009, Original artwork by James Castro.

Other amazing stories in Tennessee relate to animals and wildlife. For years, divers in the Tennessee River have told stories about seeing catfish big enough to swallow a man whole. The stories have gained so much public appeal that has devoted a section on its website about them. [] Several images in the vast collections at the Tennessee State Library and Archives lend support these amazing fish tales.

Tom Woods with a giant catfish, August 18, 1939, Department of Conservation Photograph Collection.

For more information about the stories in this blog post as well as other spooky accounts, visit the Tennessee State Library and Archives or check out the Tennessee Myth and Legends exhibit on TSLA’s website:

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Tennessee Archives Month “Accidentally on Purpose”

By proclamation of Gov. Bill Haslam, October is Tennessee Archives Month. The proclamation honors the work of archivists and highlights the importance of archives across the state, noting that "through these archives, future generations of Tennesseans can more accurately study the past, learn from the accomplishments of their predecessors, trace their ancestors, understand their community's pride of place, confirm property rights, and maintain laws, while celebrating the history of our State."

Joining the Society of American Archivists and a number of state archivists’ associations, the Society of Tennessee Archivists also celebrates this event. In 2014, the society chose “Accidentally on Purpose: Acquisition, Care, & Promotion of Unusual or Specialized Collections” as the theme for this year’s observance of Tennessee Archives Month, focusing on the unique and unusual items held in collections found in archives.

At the Tennessee State Library and Archives, our holdings contain a number of unusual items. This photograph from the State Librarian and Archivist Papers chronicles two rather interesting discoveries. In the photograph, Tennessee’s first state archaeologist and “Keeper of the Archives and Museum,” P. E. Cox, gazes upon two skulls in an image used in this year’s Tennessee Archives Month poster promoting Tennessee Archives Month. Archivists at TSLA have surmised that Cox likely uncovered these two skulls while on an archaeological expedition at Mound Bottom, a prehistoric Native American complex in Cheatham County.

Of course, there are many other “unique” and “unusual” items and photographs in our collection, so we encourage you to take advantage of Tennessee Archives Month to come by TSLA to view these items yourself.

The State Library and Archives is located at 403 Seventh Avenue North, just west of the State Capitol building in downtown Nashville, and is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., with the exception of state holidays. Parking is available in front, behind and beside the building.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.